The ruler of Tripoli (or bashaw), hearing that Algiers received tribute from America, wanted some too. So, in 1800, he demanded money, threatening war unless it was paid. The United States, instead of sending it, merely waited until the bashaw declared war, and then sent a squadron to the Mediterranean. On the way thither, it captured a Tripolitan pirate ship, and, appearing off Tripoli, began to blockade the port, to the bashaw’s dismay. As our navy was very weak, and the Tripolitan harbor was defended by one hundred and fifteen guns, nineteen gunboats, and about twenty–five thousand soldiers, it could not do more, and the war dragged on some time without any great event.
But in 1803 the Philadelphia, under Captain Bainbridge, while pursuing a Tripolitan gunboat, suddenly ran upon a rock not marked upon any chart. The American seamen frantically tried to get her off; then, seeing it was in vain, they made an attempt to scuttle their ship. But, in spite of their efforts, the Philadelphia was seized by the enemy, who towed her into the harbor of Tripoli, intending to change her into a pirate ship.
Knowing that the Tripolitans were short of powder, Richard Somers, suggested a plan to destroy the Tripolitan shipping by means of a floating mine. This idea was warmly welcomed, and great stores of powder, shot, and iron were placed on board another navy vessel, the Intrepid. Then Somers solemnly warned the few men who were to go with him that he would blow up the boat, and all on board, rather than let the powder fall into the enemy’s hands.
On the next day, thirteen blackened bodies were washed up on shore, but no one has ever known exactly what happened. Some say the explosion was an accident, but others declare that Somers, seeing he was discovered before he could fulfill his object, blew up the vessel with his own hand. His heroic deed has always been greatly admired, and a monument has been erected in his honor on the western side of the Capitol at Washington.
Somers’s attempt to set fire to their ships, lack of ammunition, and the fact that there was some trouble in the city, finally induced the Tripolitans to make a treaty of peace with the Americans in 1805. All through the war our navy had behaved so well that the pope declared that the United States, although only thirty years old, had done more in two years to put an end to piracy than all the European states together in nearly three centuries.